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Big Basin State Park Plans for Limited Reopening by Memorial Day

The park is far from ready to fully reopen after the huge fire, but the Rancho del Oso area should be open for day activities by Memorial Day
By - posted 4/27/2021 No Comment

By Julie Cart – CalMatters

In the annals of California history, no one has ever had to put a broken state park back together. There’s no guidebook, no rules. So now state officials and conservationists are attempting a complex and extraordinary Humpty Dumpty project: The reawakening of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

The state’s oldest park, Big Basin was nearly erased in last summer’s lightning-caused wildfires. In one day, 97% of it burned, destroying buildings that had been standing for 120 years.

The fire destroyed roads, bridges, campsites, trails, the visitor center, restrooms, electrical and water systems — everything that makes a park accessible to the public. Forests of giant redwoods were charred by flames that soared more than 100 feet high. Trees that didn’t fall in the fire were knocked down by howling winds in January, delivering the fatal coup de grace.

In all, it was the most comprehensive destruction ever of a major park in California history. Portions of other parks have burned, cracked by earthquakes or submerged by flooding, but not like this.

Today, the park remains closed, its trails gone. Thousands of dead, blackened trees, tens of thousands of acres of charred shrubs and scores of unearthed boulders still litter the ground.

But a rare tour on Thursday proved that regrowth is already apparent. Towering redwoods, stripped of limbs, still manage to crowd out the sky. Some have the look of chimneys, hollowed out by fire. Most are, eight months after the lightning fires, both green and black. Scorched, alligatored bark rises hundreds of feet, but vivid green shoots sprout at their base like fuzzy house slippers. “These are resilient, long-lived trees,” said Chris Spohrer, the district superintendent overseeing the state parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “It takes a lot to kill them.”

State park officials now have a message to get across: The park, 20 miles northwest of Santa Cruz, needs help, mostly money, but also public support and patience. The state’s early estimate of $200 million for basic wildfire repair across the Parks and Recreation Department will be gobbled up to satisfy Big Basin’s needs alone, estimated at $186 million. But that’s just the beginning.

The tedious work of hauling equipment and materials down a steep ravine to rebuild a trail and a viewing platform at Berry Creek Falls will cost at least half a million dollars, Spohrer said. And the state’s bill for debris and hazard tree removal in the region is now about $270 million, according to the California Office of Emergency Services.

The repair list is unimaginably long. Here’s a partial catalogue: six vehicle bridges and 46 pedestrian bridges, 85 miles of trail, 53 miles of road, 100 structures, including the park headquarters, a museum, a lodge, 20 ranger homes, hundreds of signs and miles of fences.

It’s going to take a long, long time for the park to be rebuilt, and for the forests to heal. Patience is required. But nature will prevail. Forests are resilient. The thousand-year-old redwoods have seen this before. They are already coming back. But don’t expect an identical Big Basin.

“We don’t know what it will look like,” Spohrer said. “But we do know the park is not going to look the same for a long time. It will not look the same in our lifetimes.”

As awful as the fire was, its aftermath presents a unique opportunity for a wholesale reimagining of Big Basin Redwoods. Decisions will be made about where and if to rebuild structures. Rather than constructing charming wooden buildings, perhaps they’ll use fire-resistant materials and put them in places that aren’t as likely to burn. Maybe they won’t build facilities on the root structures of ancient trees.

The planning process will begin this summer and is expected to include public meetings, consultation with partner agencies and friends groups as well as local tribes, whose history is not deeply explored in the park.

There is no reopening date yet, it’s far off and subject to the progress of restoration efforts. But the Rancho del Oso area should be open for day activities by Memorial Day, Spohrer said.

Thankfully, most of the redwoods survived, but the park will most certainly look different when it reopens.

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Related Stories: 
Five Ways You Can Help the Redwoods Recover – 9/1/2020
Big Basin Redwoods State Park: Latest Photos & Damage Report – 8/31/2020
2,000-Year-Old Redwoods Survive Fire at Big Basin – 8/25/2020
Most of Big Basin’s Redwoods Scorched, But Still Standing – 8/21/2020